So much is happening in every frame of Netflix’s ‘The Politician’ that you will not be able to multitask while watching the show- which is exactly how it ensures, like most politicians on the planet, that you won’t have the mental bandwidth available to actively reflect on every single thing as it is happening. The writing is fast-paced, with dialogues that are witty and quotable even out of context. What is even more phenomenal is the brilliant cast that does an excellent job delivering them. Ben Platt’s singing induces goosebumps as always, and actors like Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Lange, and Bette Midler deliver mesmerizing performances. We also get some gorgeous scenes like Alice and Astrid having a strong moment of pro-choice solidarity, and a parent finally realizing that the younger generation may actually be the best bet for positive change.
Having a queer character as the protagonist is phenomenal, and I will admit that it is very liberating to watch him not encounter any form of discrimination due to his sexuality at all. While that frees up Payton’s bandwidth to focus his energy on other plot points, it traps the show into an ‘I wish’ territory. Payton is a queer kid who was adopted by super rich (like, buy-your-way-into-Harvard rich) parents, and as a result has a comfortable life with a loving and supportive mother, and a community around him that supports diversity and inclusion. Not a single character ever even raises an eyebrow at him- which is definitely the goal, but it is not the reality. Though we get to see very little of his actual relationship with River, the intensity of their bond is probably the most relatable thing about the show. We also have a variety of other queer characters- but very few labels. It is a very ‘everyone is into everyone’ sort of scenario, and while that makes great points about sexuality being a spectrum, it does very little for diverse LGBTQ+ representation as the idea of individuals that are romantically and/or sexually attracted to only same-sex partners get almost no presence at all.
There is also a scene in the second season where Astrid and Payton, who were both supposedly into River, are talking about his sexuality and say that he definitely wasn’t queer as they list out possible labels, and he just “wanted to be close to everyone”. Firstly, this feels like a huge cop out from the intensity with which River was shown to be into Payton in the first season- it’s almost like the show is afraid to claim the sexuality of its characters openly and actually say the words. Secondly, it feels like the character that has basically been Payton’s center of gravity is suddenly being painted as needy or disconnected from any sense of balanced intimacy by virtue of him making out with people of different genders.
Another thing that the show does which is easier to spot while reflecting on it than it is while watching it, is that it understands millennial and Gen-Z politics through an outside-in perspective. It focuses on the scandalous, the performative, and the ambitious. It does not focus on the passionate, the dedicated, and the inspiring. When I think of student leaders, I think of the student-led protests against CAA-NRC, the ally clubs that existed in India’s colleges before sections of 377 were decriminalized, and the many, many students that raise their voice for democracy and refuse to back down every single day. When I think of student leaders outside of India, I think of the many campus-led Black Lives Matter protests, Marches for #MeToo, Speeches on Global Warming, and initiatives taken against gun violence. We are a generation that sees politics as something to not only participate in, but to actually initiate change through. The Politician does not see that. And I do not say that because of how Payton is, I say that because of how the universe of the show seems to operate. It takes a very ‘your life is literally not going to change no matter who wins elections because these people are all the same’ approach to democracy, which is an extremely privileged stance which takes the show back to the ‘I wish’ loop. I mean, there are literally characters belonging to different minorities right there on the screen- maybe ask one of them if their life gets impacted by which party and which candidate is in power?!
‘The Politician’ may have a Payton Hobbart as the titular character, but the truth is that the theme of the show feels like it is a politician in itself. It doesn’t set out to give you a lot to think about or reflect on- it sets out to absolutely mesmerize you while it is in front of you, so that you are enamored and blown away by its sheer presence. It has taken the task to cover a different political race from Payton’s life in every season and is just as ambitious as the boy himself. While Payton proves in his speeches that he cares about more issues than his rivals, the show gives us enough twists and turns per episode to battle the total number of plot points in entire seasons of other OTT narratives. Just like Payton cares about one issue one day and another the next- jumping from gun violence to global warming based on what is popular- the show touches upon every movement that its target audience is probably invested in. And just like Payton’s focus on making the most of the few minutes that he gets with his possible voters, the show works effortlessly hard to ensure that if it is playing on a screen in front of you, you cannot look away.